Hacking for a good cause

8 Apr 2019

By Jonathan Chew

Participants at the Arc work furiously to crack the system in the first-ever HackNTU's capture-the-flag challenge. PHOTO: JOEL CHAN

At first glance, seeing students huddled over computer screens in the Arc building would not appear out of the ordinary. But take a closer look and instead of lecture notes or academic papers, you will see lines of code being rapidly typed out at NTU’s first-ever HackNTU on 23 Mar.

The 24-hour long hackathon, jointly organised by the NTU Student Union and SearchElect, an information technology (IT) recruiter, saw around 300 participants from NTU as well as the wider public.

Abhishek Bhagwat, 20, who was on the organising team for HackNTU, said that the educational component of hackathons is more relevant than ever. This is given the recent issues in cybersecurity experienced in Singapore, such as the data leaks involving HIV patients this February and blood donors last month.

The issues have also prompted the government to increase its focus on cybersecurity. In December last year, the government invited 400 ethical hackers to search for vulnerabilities in some of its systems and websites, with rewards given for each reported bug. 26 bugs were found, leading the government to further expand the programme.

Abhishek pointed to the ability of this event to increase public awareness on cybersecurity issues.

“HackNTU helps people to be more aware of cybersecurity and how systems can be exploited. In this way, educating people would help them take cybersecurity more seriously,” said the second-year student from the School of Computer Science and Engineering (SCSE).

Rohan Gautam, 18, agreed with the sentiment. He said: “With the recent data breaches in government systems, it is extremely important that future IT professionals know about cybersecurity, even if they don't plan on working directly in the field of cybersecurity.”

The first-year SCSE student, who was also part of the winning team, added: “The event taught participants how hacking is done, as well as the methods that need to be implemented to keep data secure.”

“It also provides a fun way to introduce topics which would otherwise seem too complex or scary for beginners.”

The hackathon comprised of two components, a main segment and a separate capture-the-flag type of competition.

The main segment gave participants 24 hours to create their own hacks following the theme of SmartNation, titled similarly to the government initiative, in a bid to encourage the use of technology to improve lives.

Some examples of existing SmartNation initiatives include the health and diet tracking application “Healthy 365”, and an electronic appointment application for the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority “eAppt@ICA”.

All teams were given full reign to craft their project based on the theme, but only eight made it to the final round.

From there, one winner was picked based on the level of completion in their hacks, the social impact, technical difficulty, and user friendliness of their creations and how much they impressed the judges.

The winning project was an artificial intelligence (AI) representative in parliament which functions as a live lie-detection system.

The system based its lie-detection criteria on scanning people’s emotions through their faces, speech abnormalities such as pausing and stuttering, and the sentiment of their speech using Natural Language Processing. Natural Language Processing is a field in AI that focuses on helping computers to understand and process spoken human languages.

The system also comprised of a live fact-checker. It would record a transcript of what was said and query it against a database to determine if the content was accurate.

The project was the brainchild of SCSE students, Rohan, 18, as well as teammates Lakshyajeet Dwivedee and Atrik Das, both 19. The team also managed to clinch the “Best Freshman Hack” award.

Rohan said: “Our project would have a huge impact on how society operates. With fact-checking, the average person can then have a trusted and non-biased opinion on what a politician has said.”

In a separate capture-the-flag competition, participants were required to solve hacking challenges of varying difficulties.

Here, participants completed challenges set within a simulated banking system through hacking. Each successful attempt awarded them a password known as a “flag”, which they would earn points for. The team with the most points at the end of the event would emerge as the winner.

Other activities during the hackathon included coding workshops, which saw industry professionals and NTU students with coding experience helping participants who were new at it.

Abhishek, who also conducted a workshop himself, explained that “hacking” need not always be seen as negative. Instead, it can be seen as the positive use of computer science and technology to create solutions to help society.

“The term ‘hacking’ usually has some negative connotations. However in hackathons such as HackNTU, it takes on a different meaning which is more similar to ‘developing’ instead.

“I organise hackathons because I am very passionate about building a hacker culture for positive causes. I would like hackers here to be a more close-knit community which can help build this culture, and hackathons are a good way to do this,” he added.

The draw of hacking

For some, the hackathon provided a way to meet new people and express themselves.

“It is interesting that you can just go down for 24 hours and just build something out of nothing, while building some skills and making friends along the way,” said Goh Puay Hiang, 22.

The second-year student from SCSE also recalled his experiences participating in other hackathons outside of NTU.

“Going through a 24-hour long event is almost sadistic, but you kind of enjoy it,” he said.

“After your first or second time going with your friends, you might not do well or you might build something nice, but either way you will learn something.”

The hackathon also had some participants with no prior experience in hacking and programming.

Arunkumar Raaj Sre Subiksha, 20, was one such participant. The third-year student from the School of Chemical and Biological Engineering (SCBE) formed a team with her friends who were all first-timers as well.

“The topic of hacking sounded interesting, and I felt that I could learn from the workshops as well,” she said.

“Coding may not be for everyone, but if learning at this hackathon can pique my interest then I believe that I would continue learning more.”